When it comes to keeping tabs on your health, your blood pressure is a vital sign of how you’re doing.
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If it’s too high or too low, it could be a sign there’s something off with your health and could lead to serious conditions like chronic kidney disease, stroke and heart disease.
In addition to getting your blood pressure checked at your doctor’s office, you can also monitor it at home.
Family medicine specialist Laura Distel, MD, shares with us why it’s important to take your blood pressure at home and how to do it.
Yes, you can take your blood pressure at home. If you’ve had high readings at your doctor’s office or experiencing symptoms like blurry vision, lightheadedness or headaches, your doctor may suggest monitoring your blood pressure at home.
“One of the big reasons why is that we’re trying to rule out what we call white coat hypertension,” says Dr. Distel. “That’s when it’s high in the office, but normal at home. So checking at home gives you a lot more information when trying to decide if someone should be on medication or needs to be treated in some way.”
But even if your readings at your doctor’s office are normal, Dr. Distel suggests taking your blood pressure at home to make sure it’s still in the safe range.
“Some people can average a higher blood pressure at home,” she says. “Checking it at home can help to get a better sense of where you’re at on average because if you only rely on the blood pressures in the office, that’s few and far between and you may be missing out on an opportunity to improve your health.”
What you do beforehand can affect your blood pressure readings. Your blood pressure may be high due to:
You can manually check your blood pressure at home or use an automated blood pressure machine that calculates your reading for you.
An automated blood pressure machine may be ideal for most since it only requires one person to use it, provides accurate readings and is easy to use. You can find affordable blood pressure machines online and at most grocery stores or local pharmacies.
To take your blood pressure manually, you’ll need a blood pressure cuff with a squeezable balloon and a stethoscope.
Whatever method you use, before you take your blood pressure find a quiet place and sit still for about 5 minutes.
“Make sure you haven’t exercised or had caffeine or any kind of stimulant for about half an hour prior to checking your blood pressure,” says Dr. Distel.
Sit at a table with both of your feet on the ground, legs uncrossed. Sit in a chair with back support so that you can lean back and relax. Place your arms up on the table so they’re at chest height.
Check that you have the right size cuff, too. You don’t want one too big or too small. Then, roll up the sleeve on your left arm or remove any tight-sleeved clothing, if needed.
Take your blood pressure once in the morning and once in the evening. “Then do two readings, at least a minute apart from each other,” says Dr. Distel. If your reading seems too high or too low, wait a few minutes and then try again.
Try getting in a routine, too, so you can notice any patterns or shifts in your results.
And you’ll want to record your readings in a journal or notebook. Write down the date, time of day, systolic and diastolic numbers, heart rate and which arm you took the reading on. This will help you notice changes.
Dr. Distel says you can also talk to your doctor about 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure monitoring. This device allows your blood pressure to be measured over a 24-hour period, even while you sleep.
“It takes your blood pressure every three to five minutes,” says Dr. Distel. “If someone didn’t want to have to constantly check their own blood pressure it could be an option.”
The top number refers to your systolic pressure, which is the force of the blood against the artery walls as your heart beats. The bottom number is your diastolic pressure, the blood pressure between heartbeats.
If the top number is 130 or more or if the bottom number is 80 or more, you should talk to your doctor, who can determine what lifestyle changes you need to make and if you need to take any medication.
“Over time, high blood pressure can lead to complications,” says Dr. Distel. “It can lead to chronic kidney disease, strokes, heart disease and eye problems.”
But with some simple changes like increasing exercise, eating a well-balanced diet, quitting smoking and reducing salt and alcohol, you may be able to lower your blood pressure.
“The biggest thing is lifestyle changes,” says Dr. Distel. “Try to lower your sodium or salt intake in your diet and increase your aerobic activity.”
To learn more about hypertension, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “Combating High Blood Pressure.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.